One of the hardest and most intimidating things you’ll do on your way to earning a PhD in history is write a dissertation. Sitting in front of a blank computer screen can feel overwhelming when you consider the size of the task in front of you, and without an idea of how to proceed, it can be paralyzing. There isn’t one correct way to write a dissertation. In graduate school, you’ll find that picking the brains of fellow students and comparing notes will give you as many different ways to write. So this post is not a step-by-step, one-size-fits-all guide to writing a perfect dissertation. Instead, it offers some advice to help you tackle what I lovingly refer to as “The Beastie.”
Pay attention to what works for you as soon as you start graduate school. During coursework, you’ll be taking a lot of notes and writing a lot of papers. Take note of what works for you and what doesn’t. Personally, I digest material best when I can write directly on the book or article as I read. This helps me to process everything before I sit down to discuss the book in seminar or start outlining a paper. This might work for you and it might not, but keeping track of how you work best, particularly when you’re writing a research paper, is important to understand before you start the process of researching for your dissertation. You want to get a handle on what works best for you as a researcher and writer before you’re knee-deep in archival research.
Be flexible. While you want to keep track of what works for you and what doesn’t, keep in mind that your process might change as you move through graduate school. If a certain note-taking style isn’t working for you anymore, switch it up! If pausing to take notes on each source is too fragmented, take photos in the archive (follow their rules!) and process the material later. The ability to be flexible not only to the process of writing, but also what you’re writing about. I was convinced that I had to have my dissertation fully conceptualized during my first semester of grad school. Don’t get me wrong – it’s very beneficial to know what topics, era, and themes you’re interested in, but you should anticipate that you will tweak and possibly radically change your project as you go. If you’re finding lots of interesting material on a topic you thought was tangential to your initial direction, talk to your advisor about exploring other paths! This is your project and your contribution to the field — you should feel good about how it’s proceeding.
Form a Dissertation Group. This can be a group of people from your department, or a cross-departmental gathering. However it’s populated, having a dissertation group can be a great resource. I was in a group that met pretty infrequently — usually when one of us had something in particular we wanted to discuss — but it was productive and affirming to sit with a group of people going through the same thing I was, with many of the same questions and concerns. We talked about our specific projects, but also about our struggles and successes with research and writing. Producing a dissertation is already an isolating task. To get through it, you’ll need a community of support to remind you that everyone has setbacks, that your work is interesting (even when you’re sick of it), and that whatever you’re going through with your dissertation, it is normal. Being ABD – and not having the accountability of coursework – can be daunting; having a community of people who understand where you’re at can be really helpful.
Have a Dissertation Buddy. While having a dissertation group can be helpful, having a dissertation partner — someone who will read your chapters, answer freak-out emails filled with self-doubt, and who knows your project on a detailed level – can be lifesaving. Think of this person as your partner in the dissertation process. My dissertation partner was intimately familiar with my project and read drafts of every single chapter (sometimes more than once!). She knows my project probably as well as I do, and even now, she usually knows what I mean to say even if I don’t. How your relationship with your dissertation partner functions will vary from person to person, but the important thing is to find someone you jibe with.
Side note: In addition to the benefit of having someone to edit, critique, and better your work, your dissertation partner will probably become your biggest cheerleader. Grad school can sometimes feel competitive, and if you and your peers are competing for funding and awards, it’s helpful to have someone who you know is rooting for your success.
Create a Schedule. It’s no secret that one of the hardest things about writing a dissertation is maintaining the motivation and self-discipline to see it through. It’s tempting to skip or cut short your writing time for a Netflix binge (but I need a break!) or to let the plumber in or go grocery shopping (I was hungry!). So make yourself a schedule — long and short term — and stick to it as closely as you can. You know how you process research, outline, and write, so create a schedule that fits your process. I, for example, write very fast, but then spend a lot of time editing. And I like to build in time to allow myself to walk away from chapters (because I find that it’s easier to see shortcomings after taking some time away from what I’ve written). But everyone is different. As long as you’re creating a schedule and keeping to it, it doesn’t matter what the schedule itself actually is.
Write every day.* Early in my graduate career, I attended a lunch with Eric Foner ahead of a talk he gave on campus. He broke down the logic of writing the dissertation in a way that stuck with me: to finish a dissertation, you have to write. Every. Single. Day. But you don’t have to write pages and pages at a time. If you write one page every day for a year, you’ll have 365 pages. That’s a dissertation. You may be someone who processes research for a month and then writes for a month, and that’s ok. The point is that working steadily each day means you can’t help but finish eventually.
Give Yourself a Break: If there is someone out there who can do the researching and writing and editing – and the rarely-discussed work of thinking about their work – every single day without a break, I want to meet them and shake their hand. The truth is, if you work continuously without a break, you’re not going to produce your best work. There will be times when you have to push yourself, stay up late, and give yourself completely to what you’re doing. But building breaks into your schedule — for dinner with your partner, drinks with your friends, game nights with your family — is healthy and good for you and your project.
*Anne Lamont is a fiction writer, but her book, Bird by Bird has some great advice about the writing process. My advisor gifted me a copy when I became ABD and reading the book was a great way to ease into the writing phase. I return to it from time to time when I need a boost of inspiration. And how can anyone writing a dissertation not love a line like “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.” Preach.